The third in arguably cinema’s most romantic trilogies, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy this year reprised their roles as Jesse and Celine, an American man and a French woman at the heart of indie filmmaker Richard Linklater’s Before triptych. Meeting on a train in Before Sunrise (1995) and reuniting in their thirties in Before Sunset (2004), Before Midnight (2013) catches up with the couple seeking a night of passion, but the date turns to drama as they come to assess the past, present and future of their relationship. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine are now fortysomethings living in Paris with twin girls of their own.
Jesse is the prestigious writer of two autobiographical novels about his relationship with Celine. Celine, meanwhile, is an environmental activist contemplating taking a government job that she doesn’t really want. The film follows the characters as they come to the end of their holiday at a picturesque writer’s retreat in Greece. Their host is Patrick (cinematographer Walter Lassally), an expat writer and mentor for Jesse. As one has come to expect from the series, the camera follows the couple as they wander aimlessly through the countryside and weave between ancient ruins, discussing their careers and the complexities of life.
Jesse has a teenage son, Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), from his first marriage who visits for the summer holidays. Every time they say goodbye, Jesse appears wracked with paternal guilt that disturbs his otherwise blissful life. One evening, the couple plan a child-free night of romance culminating at a hotel. However, when Jesse mentions relocation Celine raises concerns of her own that shake the foundations of their seemingly harmonious unity. Following in the tradition of its predecessors, Before Midnight is heavy on dialogue. The screenplay, co-written by Linklater, Hawke and Delpy, remains tightly focused on the development of the characters, their feelings and their thoughts, giving us ample time to reconvene.
Much like the cinema of Éric Rohmer, the characters speak intelligently and with a sense of immediacy, constantly painting a picture of themselves and their current position as opposed to laying slabs for a contrived plot. A scene in the car, filmed in one continuous take, shows Jesse and Celine chatting. There’s no drama but their conversation, as insular as it may sound, is thoroughly compelling as it’s all relatable and holds a mirror to anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship. The focus of Linklater’s camera is always on his characters, yet he envelops them with serene landscapes and scorching sunshine that emanate warmth, ensuring that even in the most fractious scenes, the viewer feels the heat.
The beauty of Linklater’s third entry is not only in the location but in its audacious simplicity. The narrative flows like a welcome breeze with scenes emerging organically and at an efflorescent pace. Before Midnight is quietly melancholic in its study and invites the audience to question whether true love, lust and romance can exist beyond the romantic expectations studied in the previous two films. It’s an absolute pleasure to witness Hawke and Delpy in their familiar roles, both have undeniable chemistry as talented actors and erudite writers. Linklater has once again delivered a sweet and subtle drama, rich in substance and with a (not so) perfect couple at its heart.
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